April 8, 2012

Want to be a better person? Read novels.

And put that self-help book down.

I recently read an article in The New York Times called “Your Brain on Fiction,” wherein author Annie Murphy Paul engages the latest neuroscience research to argue for the usefulness of reading novels.

This sparked my interest immediately, since, living among a concentration of Bay Area yogi types, I am constantly having to defend my novel reading when there are apparently so many self-help and spiritual books I should really be consuming.

I have never been much of a self-help reader. When I crawl into bed at night after a long day dealing with people and things, the last thing I want to do is work on myself. Give me a good novel and let’s call it a day.

I’ve always felt like reading novels was a dirty pleasure I allowed myself to help get through it all. But more and more lately I’m reading reports that fiction is actually an important creative and linguistic outlet for the brain, especially for us diehard introverts. In her New York Times piece, Paul makes the point that stories stimulate our brains to learn and grow. Our minds latch on to evocative descriptions that help us understand things in terms of our five senses. Here is an example from the Times article:

From The New York Times “Your Brain on Fiction" by Annie Murphy Paul

Reading fiction is not just a silly hobby or a way to up our vocabulary ante; evocative descriptions, metaphors and narratives actually affect our brains in a precise way that makes us better equipped to understand people and life. Words and phrases with descriptive associations connect to the part of our brain where it counts. We affiliate more deeply with writing that appeals to our attachment to taste, smell and sound.

Ever since someone close to me once told me that people who read fiction are “stupid,” I’ve made it my mission to justify my lifelong reading habit. Like a lot of my ’70s-childhood generation, I grew up in a largely unsupervised environment without internet or cable TV. We were set loose and made our own adventures.

My brother and the boys I grew up with were regular little Huck Finns. But, not being a very good tomboy, my adventures were usually to be found in the pages of the books I checked out of the tiny one-room local library in my rural Western Massachusetts hometown.

Of course, as a writer, I’ve had to also get out there in the world and actually do things occasionally, if only for the sake of having something to write about. So I’m not suggesting that one will grow and improve as a human being merely by curling up with a good Salinger or Franzen. Or, not just that way, at least. But, it’s not a bad start.

I also found this, while flipping through O Magazine at the library recently. It’s from “The New Health Rules” by Leslie Goldman in the February 2012 issue.

“The New Health Rules” byLeslie Goldman in the February 2012 issue of O.

And there, at last, is the crux of it. Most readers I know are thoughtful and introspective sorts who really get their friends and greater humanity. In contrast, I’ve met more than one disdainful non-fiction reader who turned out to be an actual clinical psychopath. So for all you bookworms out there who, like me, have gotten through life by taking refuge in books, take heart—you’ve been on to something all along.

P.S. Here are some of my favorite books of all time.


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Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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